It Starts With Listening: Amy Hempel Interviewed by Julia Slavin​

The writer on her new collection of stories about encroaching landscapes, disenfranchised characters, and the fleeting certainty of home.

Sing To It Cover

I have known Amy Hempel for twenty years, through seven books and nine dogs and twelve houses or apartments between us.  We met on the first warm night of spring in 1999. While we were walking from the coffee shop to the Folger Theatre where she was giving a reading, knowing she wasn’t familiar with Washington DC, I messed with her by pointing out a dilapidated town house and saying it was the Department of Justice. She said, “Yep. Justice is down on her luck these days.” We have taught each other’s work to writing students, given readings together across the country, and she wrote me into her new novella, “Cloudland,” as Tropical Storm Julia.

Her new collection of fourteen exquisite, empathic, and sometimes devastating stories and a novella, Sing to It (Scribner), is published this month.

—Julia Slavin

Julia Slavin In your story “Sing to It,” you use a proverb to create another proverb. I find it difficult to discuss this story because it is religious and there is a reason we pray in silence.

Amy Hempel That is a beautiful response to the title story, the shortest in the book. But let me trample over that silence for a moment and say that it started as simply an observation that refutes something we all learn about language. We are taught what metaphors are, and we are urged to use them. While I admire metaphors in the work of other writers, and I’ve used a few myself, there’s a way in which they seem fake—nothing is like anything else. The other thing going on in this very short story is a matter of loyalty. When someone you care about asks you for a kind of comfort that you don’t believe in, but which you can provide, why not give that person comfort?  This story uses the Arab proverb: “When danger approaches, sing to it.” I’ll let readers discover the new proverb you found in the story for themselves.

JS Years ago, I took my daughter to see you at the Folger in Washington D.C. You read “Weekend,” from Tumble Home, a story about two days of exhilaration with friends. But at the end we know this happiness is fleeting. On the way back to the car, I asked her why she was tearful. She said, “Because it was and will never again be.” 

Your story “The Second Seating” has the same effect: unbridled joy of friends at an endless dinner. Their dying friend will stay alive until the bill comes. Of course, you leave the story of his dying to the reader: “We said to the waitress that we wanted to start over.”

AH I’ve always loved your daughter! That story came about because of something a dear friend’s husband insisted on when he was dying. This couple had begun work on their house shortly before he became ill; they were adding an enclosed porch would offer a beautiful view of rolling hills. When he was diagnosed, his wife did not want to continue with construction of the porch. But he insisted, he wanted her to have one room in their house with no associations of him for her, a room he would not live to enter. She did what he wanted, and had the builders complete the porch, and saw what a wise and generous thing her husband had done. In my story, the friends gather at a lodge for a special dinner their friend cannot join them in; they celebrate him by staying on and on, his memory alive as long as they are there.

JS I feel that a lot has already been written about the idea of “home” in your work, but I want to talk about the encroaching environment of home in your novella Cloudland. Something out of control, always slightly off, that makes home impossible.

AH One of the characters I had a good time including in the novella is the climate change-denying neighbor. I was living in Florida when I wrote most of the novella, and these people are everywhere. I mean, they’re everywhere, but when you are standing on Ocean Drive in South Beach and the water from a rainstorm is above your sandals, the idea that there is no such thing as global warming and the resulting destruction that is both right there in front of people and getting worse takes on a new level of lunacy. These people, if the subject is raised, call climate change “the controversy.” I wasn’t able to change any minds about it while I was there. Combine that with the encroaching landscape of countless fast-growing invasive plants, and insects multiplying, and water levels from hurricanes taking out whole towns (think of Mexico Beach, on the Gulf Coast, for example), and the damage to Cedar Key, also on the Gulf Coast, where friends and I would often drive to watch dolphins from a dock while having lunch.

Sometimes houses themselves make home impossible—trees and vines growing through window screens and roofs, a walkway mowed back and days later grown over with some kind of ground cover frequented by snakes. I picture the famous photograph by Jerry Uelsmann of a stately empty house growing out of enormous tree roots that have pushed through the ground.

JS Then there’s the everlasting encroachment of longing.                                                                                                      

AH That is a beautiful phrase!

JS The only thing that keeps the character grounded is the mass of her longing. It’s hard to think about longing as something that keeps us from flying off the ground into space… Many of your characters are disenfranchised. They are never really part of a community. They move from house to house, renting, never buying.

Eventually, someone calls the roofer, but she could have just as well let the leak expand. Are they looking for a geographic cure or are they seeds flying in on a jet stream? The narrator’s only community in Cloudland is comprised of the ancient patients she checks in on and a neighbor who bludgeons her with stupid jokes and unsolicited advice. This narrator seems to have given up on the idea of home, and settles on a kind of floating, on ambiguity.

AH First off, I’m a fan of the geographical cure—it does work, if briefly. People who move a lot (and I said this in another story), tend to confuse activity with action. But you’re right about the disenfranchised in my stories. I see people who truly are, and I feel both sympathy and deep fear of how easy it is to cross over. The state of the economy sends people out of their homes and into the street, or close to the street. I read a lot of articles about people who “downsize,” and sometimes there is a weird luxury to the sound of their efforts, to choose to downsize, not to have to. And the other kind—people who are without much of a community. That is a sadness too. Unless it is just what a person wants: to get rid of the superficial, the extraneous, to do a simple job (there is dignity in work), to be almost anonymous and nearly unaccountable. I just thought of a line in a story by William Tester—there’s a man at his window watching an elderly couple make love in a nearby apartment. He thinks, It wasn’t pretty, but it still was sex. These lives may not be pretty, but they still are lives, you know?

Photo By Vicki Topaz

Photo by Vicki Topaz.

JSYou are always surprising me. I have a friend who after fifteen years of knowing her told me she was a pilot. She didn’t understand why I thought that was a big deal. After many years, I found out that you can grill. You can make beautiful boxes with tiny shells. You can drive long, long distances without GPS. You can caulk.

In the same way, I am always surprised by your stories—by the magic realism in “The Doll Tornado.” Also, the ending of “Sing to it,” with its metaphors so powerful that they replace the human. Do you remember in “Persona” when Bibi Andersson tells a story about having sex on the beach? Apparently, the image in her speech was so strong that many people remember having seen it on the screen.

AHThat’s wild about people thinking they saw the scene on screen! I’m thrilled that you remembered I can caulk. It’s not up there with piloting a plane, yet I am proud of it. The thing about “The Doll Tornado” is that it’s not magic realism; there was a real tornado made of dolls, an installation titled “Toynado,” by the artist Kim Holleman, and I saw it in Elsewhere, an artists’ space in Greensboro, NC. I only observed it, and was very moved by it. But a doll tornado appearing in one of your stories would be magic realism because you have a more voluptuous imagination than I do.

JSThis is about you, not me, remember?

AHI can recognize gold when I see it, but you are able to produce it.                                                                                    

JSWe can duke it out about whether or not you have a voluptuous imagination. You would not be able to twist and turn reality and language and emotion the way you do without it.

AHI’m flattered that you thought I could make up something like that. Speaking of being surprised, and very moved, I just read a sentence in the novel you have nearly finished, that surprised me in its evocation of a moment where a character says, “I inhaled the scent of hardware store that comes of mixing paint thinner with sod and tires and birdseed, the smell that makes grown people miss their late fathers.” It’s been in my head constantly since I read it. It calls up a kind of sensory response in a reader, I think, somewhat like the effect produced by reading Joe Brainard’s I Remember.

JSI lead a humanist Seder every Passover, and I’m always trying to update the ten plagues. The first plague of Egypt is water turning to blood. In your novella, an inviting spring turns to sludge. The last plague of Egypt is the Angel of Death who visits the home for unwed mothers where the narrator in “Cloudland” gave birth. There’s an eco-fabulist element at play in some of the other plagues visited upon the narrator in the novella: sinkholes, gators in wait, snakes, floods, banana spiders, “palm meadows,” clear cutting, floods in basements, hurricanes, and then the child abuser next door.

AHWhich is why I often need to read something that you have written. Since we long ago determined how lovely it is to be quoted back to oneself, let me mention one more line you wrote in your new novel: “I would say I have heard worse, but I have not.” I have to veer off for a moment and say that I was watching CNN just before we started talking, and this line could be the only line that ever needs to appear on the crawl.

JSNo one writes songs about cars anymore. You once handed me a road map and told me to figure out how to get us from west Florida to east Florida. I know how important your car is to you. When I read about an ant infestation in the car in your novella, I thought, “Oh no. Bad choice, guys.” I’m remembering the time you were coming to visit me in DC and called from a gas station to tell me your horn was stuck. I drove over to meet you. Two guys who pretended to be twins tried to scam us into coming to their fake garage. We couldn’t stop laughing about the horn but we were also distressed. Then another woman drove into the station. Her horn was stuck too. I wondered how you might treat that experience in a story.

AHThat was nuts. Two stuck horns. Then the fake twins started their scam on that driver, a really pretty woman who also didn’t know what to do. The best part of your recollection here is when you said, “two guys who pretended to be twins.” There’s a story. I love that. But I wouldn’t put the two stuck horns in a story because it’s a coincidence. Alice Mattison published an interesting essay a few years back on why we like coincidence in life, but distrust it in fiction. I think she’s right. There’s something convenient about it on the page.

JSCan you talk about the men in your work? Often your stories begin as a relationship ends. I like the cruelty of “The Quiet Car,” the short-short in which a man suggests a train ride to a woman to catch up, but leads her to the Quiet Car on the Acela Express they board. Have you ridden the Quiet Car of the Acela lately? Mob mentality there. Those who choose it over regular business class are looking for a fight. “Test me,” they are saying. “Just try to talk on that phone.” I once saw a fight break out in the Quiet Car. A man who was clearly talking to a child on his phone yelled, “Fruity or minty?” And the crowd was upon him.

AHI’m always interested in where a writer enters a story. Someone else would begin, maybe, at the beginning of the relationship. But I often like to begin with a defining moment. Like the moment you realize you loathe something about a person that you initially admired. I like to begin when things are already on the skids. The story “Black Light,” by Kimberly King Parsons, begins: “Jesus, that’s who.” So cool. Or I like starting on a positive note, with a moment of realization about another person—like the realization that this is someone you can trust. But then there is the short-short story in my book that starts with the narrator getting a phone call from the wife of the man who raped her. The attack itself is not in the story.

JSAlso shocking is the man in “The Orphan Lamb” who commits an act that is both brutal and, we are told, compassionate. Somehow it is a sexy story and perhaps how our species has survived. A female chimpanzee will throw herself on the ground before the most violent male in the community. “The Orphan Lamb” feels prehistoric. Is the character the first man?

AHPrehistoric. I would never have thought of that, and it’s exactly right. I’m glad you found it sexy as well as prehistoric. I tried to create a kind of confusion in this short-short story, such that a reader would not know how to feel by the end of it. It’s grisly; it’s kind of scary. But what the man does is not done to shock. It is, in its dark way, natural where he comes from. I don’t want to give away more than that.

JSYou always leave space for the reader to fill in. I experience it as respect and great generosity in the way good friends understand each other—

AH—without speaking, or finish each other’s sentences.

JSIt’s easy for someone to feel she is under-articulating while talking to you about your writing. So much of it comes from observations that run through a deep place in your unconscious and that’s unexplainable. Also, your writing is about language, the rhythm of the speech. How do you teach your students language?

AHI feel that you could answer this better than I can. You make up a whole dialect in your new novel; it’s spoken by the residents of the town of Timber Ridge. It made me so happy to read that one of the local men says, “Ats hew it wiz.” It got into my head. I always ask students to eavesdrop, to listen to what people really say. Words are left out. It’s the difference between a character in a story saying, “What the fuck are you doing?” when a real person would say, “The fuck are you doing.” People talk past each other when they know each other, or when they are trying to avoid a subject, and I love seeing that brought to the page. It starts with listening.

JSI know you listen to music when you write, and I wonder if you suffer, as I do, from Stuck Song Syndrome. For some reason, more women than men suffer stuck song syndrome. It can last for weeks and will drive you mad. What is your worst stuck song? Mine is a toy commercial from childhood. It goes, “What do you know about Weebles? Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” It’s worse than “Copacabana.”

AHIt is worse than “Copacabana,” and now it is MY worst stuck song too.

Julia Slavin is the author of The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg At the Maidstone Club and Other Stories and the novel, Carnivore Diet. She has recently completed a collection, Stories For Squatters, and is at work on a novel.

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